Mal’occhio: How an automotive curse saved my life.

The intended audience for “Mal’occhio: how an automotive curse saved my life” are readers of personal essays on sites like Longreads or The Morning News.

Abstract: The author blames a car accident in New York on a mysterious grandma in North Carolina and learns to deal with life’s problems from his eldest sibling and a beautiful stranger.

Keywords: mal’occhio; evil eye, curses, automotive problems, Italian-Americans; West Harrison, NY; Silver Lake, NY; Tappan Zee Bridge. chicory; chicoria.

 

At 11:45 a.m. on Sunday, November 29, 1992, my Concord-grape Hyundai Sonata caressed the rear bumper of a rust black 70s era Chevy sedan in front of me. At the same time, a brand-new silver Dodge minivan completed the wine-press equation, crushed the rear-end of my car, and sent most of my record collection tumbling through the Hyundai’s back seat into my lap. This accident happened at about  eight miles-per-hour on the congested middle lane of the west-bound side of the now-replaced Tappan Zee Bridge, which spanned the Hudson River between Tarrytown and Nyack, New York. My involvement in the accident was the fault of a restaurant owner’s grandmother in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I had relocated seven weeks earlier, and to where I was returning from a family Thanksgiving gathering at my childhood home in Silver Lake, New York.

My college roommate, Louis Bono reveled in taunting me  by telling new friends, “Dillo’s got a big family. And there’s a lot of them too!” He was not wrong on either count. I am “Dillo,” the youngest of nine children born in Silver Lake to Angelina and Joe. Technically, I was born in West Harrison, New York. West Harrison’s tiny local post-office was marked “East White Plains” and squatted next to an even tinier Italian delicatessen. The deli served the most delicious egg and potato sandwiches for breakfast and was crowded with rows of salamis and stinky cheeses hanging from the ceiling. “Silver Lake,” was the erroneously nicknamed outcropping of the Kensico reservoir near the center of the downtown. The lake, on maps from the early twentieth century, is called “St. Mary’s Lake.” I am still confused by all of it.

Silver Lake was and still is a heavily Italian influenced town. From April through early October roving packs of black clad septuagenarian widows, their tight white curls covered by black lace scarves, bent crooked by the side of the road to harvest what we called “chick-KAWteeya,” the leaves of the abundant dandelions that grew curbside and in highway entrance ramp medians.  “Chick-KAWteeya” is a phonetic approximation of the word. What I heard as a child could not be spelled. It clearly contained a “Q” and maybe a few “Ds” but no “U.”

What were they doing with all that roadside greenery? Clearly, it was whipped into potions to be used for dark magic. Parishioners at St.Anthony’s murmured “Stregga Nonne” about these chick-KAWteeya-picking widows, who  knelt by the altar rail throughout the entire Sunday service. “Strega Nonne” is literally “grandma witches.” Children were warned to behave lest a Strega Nonna give you the mal’occhio and put a curse on you. I was certain that when (not if) I was given the evil-eye, it would involve having to eat “chick-KAWteeya.”  It wasn’t until I recently visited New Orleans that I realized the actual word I was hearing was “chicoria,” the Italian name for chicory. The rolling “r” gave it its exotic sound..

Well, the mal’occhio that was thrown at me in front of the Mediterranean Deli in Chapel Hill on Saturday, October 10, 1992 came from someone who looked like a Strega Nonna, but was miles removed from Silver Lake and was likely from somewhere further south and east on the Mediterranean Peninsula than Italy.

I had driven into Chapel Hill from Silver Lake for the first time two days earlier in my pristine Hyundai packed with my entire wardrobe (which neatly filled a duffle bag at the time) a Hagstrom III electric guitar, and a small Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier. I knew one person in town, Jon Whaley, and he was a generous host, providing me a couch to sleep on while I looked for a place of my own. It was frightening and I was no longer the little brother with eight older siblings nearby to make sure I succeeded.

On the previously mentioned fateful Saturday, Jon and I were enjoying Chapel Hill’s FestiFall street festival. The tiny and, as I learned, recently opened Mediterranean Deli set out a feast on the West Franklin street sidewalk. A small table was prepared with food samples being delivered to passersby by large friendly men with larger friendlier mustaches. Bouzouki music, not unlike the opening theme from “The Third Man,” blared from a boombox behind them.  The smell of spices filtering off the table was more than I could resist and  I said “yes” to every taste of falafel and kebab and Turkish coffee and baklava proffered as I prevented other fair-goers from progressing. I caused a small traffic-jam on the crowded sidewalk. I eventually took a napkin and decided to say “no” when offered a fresh menu by the black-clad withered woman seated at the far end of the table.

“No?!” she cackled, “You ate…”

Sun glinted off her headscarf. More colorful than black lace, a thin sheer floral-patterned wrap allowed her blue-tinged white hair to peek out over her severely arched eyebrow. She squinted at me and then past me at the line of people I had delayed.

“Yes, thank you, it was delicious,” I responded.

“Then you take menu?”

“No, thank you.” And I loped off.

The witches’ floral headscarf remains vivid in my memories as well as the low growl that sounded behind me. I turned to see the Stregga Nonna of the Mediterranean Deli conjuring her right hand into a goat-horn symbol, twisting it in my direction, and contorting her face into a single-eyed grimace. She crumpled the refused menu in her left hand, barked “Feh!,” and spat on the ground.

In the next couple weeks, I blamed my car trouble on bad luck and stupidity not with the curse that accompanied the mal’occhio. When my car began roaring like a nitro-fueled drag racer on I-40 and my muffler receded from view in my rear-view mirror illuminating the late-night stretch of the Great Smoky Mountains behind me, it was nothing but bad luck. I attributed the temporary repossession of my Hyundai to my stupidity in contacting my bank and giving them my address and a promise of payment soon. The witch with the floral headwrap never entered my thoughts.

I attributed the post-Thanksgiving accident on the pull of my family; on my inability to make my way in Chapel Hill; on my wrong-headed notion that pursuing life as a musician was a good idea. When the tow-truck deposited me and my Hyundai in a holding lot on the edge of the Hudson River in Nyack, I was ready to give up. I called my oldest brother Len in Tarrytown, from the roadside phone booth. He and his wife Rosie picked me up. We shuffled my record collection into their Nissan and all my other possessions I had picked up from home that weekend. I cried the whole ride back to Tarrytown.

I was exhausted and in a state of shock. I told my brother, “I’m not going back. This was all a bad idea. I can move back in with dad and find a new job here.” My family and Silver Lake were more comforting than dealing with my new problems like an adult.

Since the passing of my mother about eighteen months earlier, I was failing at adult life. I was drinking too much, fighting too much and crying too much. My abdication of my own apartment in Port Chester to move back in with my father was further avoidance of dealing with my issues. When my dad moved on and found a new girlfriend who visited our home often, it was a sign that I had to make a drastic change.

A seven-inch record from a band named Superchunk planted the seed of Chapel Hill in my mind. Soon I was seeing articles about the Chapel Hill music scene in national magazines like Details, Spin, and even Rolling Stone. Sonic Youth had written an infectious song about the town. Albums by bands like Flat Duo Jets and Southern Culture on the Skids would blare from the Vinyl Solution’s turntable.  The name Chapel Hill seemed to be calling to me through the ether. When Polvo oozed out of the store’s speakers I was ready to consider moving to Chapel Hill. When I received a Cat’s Cradle rock club schedule and saw the list of national bands that were playing there, at a fraction of the cost of the same shows in New York City, I made the decision to quit my job and leave New York for a few years.

But I was back in Tarrytown. Silver Lake was a mere eight miles away.

I slept hard after the car accident. My brother Len woke me at about 9 p.m. and pressed a bus ticket at me. “Rosie and I are going to drop you off at the White Plains bus station and get you back to Chapel Hill by tomorrow morning.”  I protested “No way. I can’t afford that bus ticket and I need to deal with my car. They won’t miss me at the new job. I’m not going back.” My brother Len was about the size of a middling adult black bear. Remember, “I have a big family.”

Len also did not have a mean bone in his body. When he smacked me and pulled me off the couch, my shock wore off. “I will fight you, Paul. If you do not take this ticket and get back to North Carolina, I won’t forgive you. And you won’t forgive yourself.” This was coming from the man who had taught me how to play guitar and who had never raised his voice in my presence. He walked me through his garage to his car. I noticed my records from the accident, crated and piled neatly in a corner of the garage with everything else that had come out of the Hyundai earlier. Len saw me going for them and said, “you come back and get those at Christmas. Let’s go.”

I slept on the Greyhound as it made its way through Southern Westchester County to the Port Authority bus terminal. At Port Authority I switched buses and boarded the midnight Southern Express to Raleigh. I found a window seat near the rear where I could prop my head on my backpack and sleep. While drifting off, I noticed a beautiful woman from the bus in White Plains boarding the bus along with what felt like hundreds of other passengers. As the bus filled the driver implored passengers to leave room in adjoining seats. The beautiful woman sat a few rows ahead of me, and there was an empty seat next to her. I abandoned my seat and sat there, thinking it would be a more pleasant ten hours in her company.

I asked how far south she was travelling and by some stroke of luck, she responded that she lived in Chapel Hill. She would have a ride waiting in Raleigh and offered to get me back to Chapel Hill when we arrived the next morning. As we rode south on the New Jersey Turnpike through sulfur stench and arc light glow, we exchanged stories. She was an actress with a theatre company in Raleigh, and worked at a coffee shop in Chapel Hill. She was originally from Poughkeepsie, but had been living in Chapel Hill for five years. She liked Chapel Hill, but wanted to move someplace bigger. I told her about the car accident and the bus ticket Len forced on me.

She asked how I liked Chapel Hill so far. And she asked if I had done anything fun since moving there. At that moment the floral headscarf rushed back in my memory. I told her about FestiFall and the Stregga Nonna. I told her I remembered the mal’occhio. She asked if I believed in curses. “Not really I said.” She looked at me and crinkled her nose and furrowed her brow trying to look serious.  She had long dark hair, very pale skin and blue eyes. We drifted to sleep for a while.

When we awoke again at a Greyhound station somewhere south of D.C. we, resumed our conversation She told me about her boyfriend who would be meeting us in Raleigh. I told her a little bit about my mom’s death, and my troubles afterward and my move. And I started crying. “Do you believe in curses?” she asked again, and I replied again “No.”

As she looked at me again, piercing my brain with her deep blue eyes, she said “sometimes bad things happen and there’s no reason. Sometimes, someone gives you a push. The curse can be something very small, like car trouble. But curses are real and they’re manageable. The big stuff is harder, but if you manage the small curse, the larger problems sometimes fall in place.” Sadly, I do not remember this wise woman’s name.

We arrived in Raleigh about 9:45 a.m. that Monday morning, November 30, 1992. Her boyfriend’s Toyota Corolla was waiting there for us. The boyfriend and I exchanged pleasantries. He was in the same theatre company; they were working on a production of “The Seagull;” I should come see it. “Where would you like to be dropped off?” he asked. “The Mediterranean Deli,” I said.

I had a Turkish coffee and a piece of baklava. I took two menus with me when I left.

If I am travelling further than Raleigh to the east or Greensboro to the west, I eat at he Mediterranean Deli a day or two before the trip.  Over the years, other cars have stranded me in Fredericksburg, Virginia or caught fire on Franklin Street. When this happens I realize, “I have forgotten to eat at the Med Deli recently.”

27 years later, I am still in Chapel Hill. I am married to my best friend, a native of Durham who I met at one of my bartending gigs while music was still my job. She is the smartest, funniest person I know. I have good friends. I have a good job. I don’t know if I would have any of these things if a withered Stregga Nonna had not given me the mal’occhio and placed a curse on me that made me crash my car on the Tappan Zee bridge.